TOPICS > Health

For Legendary Coach Summitt, Next Opponent Is Dementia Diagnosis

August 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history, has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. Hari Sreenivasan talks to her son Tyler Summitt and The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins about how the coach is coping and staying focused on her team after 37 seasons leading the University of Tennessee's Lady Vols.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a second story about a legendary figure who’s coping with a major health problem and, for now, has decided to stay on in her job.

Hari Sreenivasan begins with some background.  


HARI SREENIVASAN: She is the winningest coach in college basketball history. Pat Summitt has spent 37 seasons leading the Lady Vols at the University of Tennessee, won more than 1,070 games, including eight national championships. But Summitt told The Washington Post this week she’d begun to feel off her game last season.

PAT SUMMITT, University of Tennessee: I can remember being — trying to coach and trying to figure out schemes and whatever, and I just — it wasn’t coming to me like I typically would say, oh, we’re going to do this, going to run that. I think it probably caused me to second-guess.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Her son, Tyler Summitt, says he noticed changes as well.

TYLER SUMMITT, son of Pat Summitt: There is just — it’s something different. And whether it was asking the same question twice, “What time do I need to go to the office?”, things like that, losing her keys three times, instead of just once…


TYLER SUMMITT: … you know, things like that, something was just a little — a little off.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After a May visit to the Mayo Clinic, doctors diagnosed Pat Summitt with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s. The news stunned the basketball world, especially Summitt’s players, but they vowed to rally around their coach.

TABER SPANI, University of Tennessee: I was just trying to hold back tears just because I love coach Summitt. And I love just being a part of this program. I feel honored to be under her and be a player. Seeing that for her, it was just really sad. But, like I said, I come away ready to go after it and ready to fight along with her.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Known for her fierce determination, Summitt said she plans to continue as head coach, albeit with increased support from her staff.

PAT SUMMITT: I could retire, but, right now, we’re trying to get this team where it needs to be. And, you know, we have got a veteran group. And, no, I’m looking forward to the season. I’m not going to let this keep me from coaching; that’s for sure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s a decision that has garnered support from the Tennessee athletic community.

JOAN CRONAN, University of Tennessee: Pat Summitt’s an icon for women’s basketball. I feel like one of my jobs is to protect a Pat Summitt, who’s a friend and colleague to all of us, to protect the legacy of Pat Summitt, which is absolutely incredible, and to keep our program moving forward.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And the program’s success continues. Last season, even as she was struggling with her undiagnosed condition, she led the Lady Vols to a 34-3 season.

For more on her story, we turn now to Tyler Summitt, Pat Summitt’s son, and Sally Jenkins. She is the Washington Post reporter who sat down with coach Summitt. She has worked on Summitt’s autobiography with her and is a personal friend as well.

Thanks for being with us.

Tyler, let me start with you.

First of all, I’m sorry your mom is going through this. But how did she take it initially when she got the test results?

TYLER SUMMITT: You know, there was an initial state of denial, I would say, and the question, why me? It’s not hard to be diagnosed with this. But I think, after a month or so, she came to terms with it and accepted it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sally Jenkins, as a friend, you said you started to notice some things. You wrote very eloquently. You said that there’s a faint sense of dimming, as if a jar had been placed over a candle.

How so?

SALLY JENKINS, The Washington Post: Well, you know, Pat would ask three times: “What time — what time should I be at practice? What time is the meeting?”

Pat loves practice. Practice is the center of her day, and so, if — she calls it her classroom when she goes into practice and works with her players. And so when she couldn’t remember literally what time she had to be at practice, that was a pretty profound sign that something was wrong.

Tyler has said she would ask “Where are my car keys?” three times in a day, instead of once.


SALLY JENKINS: She’s always juggled too many obligations and she’s always juggled so many responsibilities, that we have always seen her lose her cell phone or lose her car keys, but this was just beyond normal.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tyler, you said that once she accepted her diagnosis and she was out of denial, it was like a gun went off and she bolted out of it. What do — explain that.

TYLER SUMMITT: Well, it took her a while to come to terms with it, but, once she did, she started cracking jokes about it, you know, “Oh, I forgot I have dementia,” things like that, or maybe I would forget to take the dogs out, and she’d say, “Oh, I might be rubbing off on you, huh?”

And she just had a good time with it and really became comfortable with it, comfortable saying it, things like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what is she doing now? What kind of therapy is shy participating in? Or is she doing mental exercises?

TYLER SUMMITT: She is. She has a routine.

And my mom always has a plan, no matter what it is. And she wakes up. She has her iPad and goes with her puzzles, things like that, to keep her mind sharp. And then also she exercises every day, builds the neurons in her brain. And she always has a plan to fight this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sally, is this the type of person she is in every other part of her life in how she approaches it?

SALLY JENKINS: Absolutely.

I mean, I think that Pat is fighting this fight the way she’s fought every fight that she’s ever had. And she’s had a lot of them, by the way. And it’s also — I mean, personally, I really feel it’s an extension of everything she’s ever taught on the basketball court.

I mean, if Pat has ever had a purpose as a teacher, it’s to teach her players and teach young women and this guy here how to deal with a reversal or a setback. I mean, she’s worked her whole life for this moment and to be in this sort of fight and to show people how you fight.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tyler, kind of picking up on that, what is it — for folks who might not know your mom, what is it that makes her want to keep coaching through this?

TYLER SUMMITT: It’s her passion. And it always has been her passion. She wakes up every day and thinks about the relationships that she has with those young ladies, her players.

And she just loves being around them and making their lives better, not only on the court, but also off. And so there’s nothing that could take that passion away from her. And she’s not going to let this diagnosis stop her from doing that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sally, we have heard the numbers, but beyond those successes on the court, for folks who don’t follow college basketball, what is it about Pat Summitt that holds her in such high regard across so many different sports?

SALLY JENKINS: Well, her masterpiece is sitting right next to me.

I think that if you ever questioned Pat’s values, or what she teaches, or what she tries to do with other people’s children, all you have to do is watch her son in the last few days, and you know she’s absolutely authentic in all of her values.

I think people know Pat a lot better now after the last few days. And that’s one thing that is very gratifying to me as her friend. I have always wished everybody could know the Pat that I know. And I feel like people will actually get to do that now. I think they’re seeing her courage, her humor, her warmth and, frankly, you know the very best of her in this guy here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, Sally, what’s been the reaction across the college basketball world or the athletic world? Are people writing in?

SALLY JENKINS: Yes, there’s many, many, many reactions.

Coaches, her friends in the profession are terribly upset. You know, her former players, obviously, are terribly upset. But, you know, everyone I have talked to, I have said, you know, the best antidote for this is to talk to Pat directly. Every time I start to feel bad about this, I look at her or I talk to her, and I feel a lot better.

I have a lot of faith in the way she’s fighting. I have a lot of faith in her inner strength, in the way she’s dealing with this. I think that Tyler and I feel really pretty good about her because we have gotten to be around her in the last week to 10 days and watched her gearing up to go public.

And so I think we probably feel better than a lot of people who haven’t been able to talk to her and see her.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tyler, has your mom thought about the fact that, in some ways, she’s carrying a larger community on her shoulders now, she’s almost becoming an ambassador for this condition and Alzheimer’s, too?

TYLER SUMMITT: You know, my mom is very modest. And she never looks past the Lady Vols.

I think even though she may realize that other people are watching, she just focuses on what she does every day and, again, stays modest and just does what she’s always done, be really open and honest about things, and have her program be an open book.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, Sally, kind of a last question about basketball here, what is that support infrastructure that she has set up? When the Lady Vols take the court this year, what kind of role is she playing? How has she sort of formally moved things around?


Well, she will delegate some things. I think Pat’s having some difficulty tracking all 10 players, time, possession, both benches, the shifting schemes of a 40-minute game. She’s having trouble tracking all of that information together.

So I think she will delegate some of the play calling responsibility. But she is still the greatest rebounding coach in the world. She’s still the greatest defensive coach in the world. She’s still the greatest motivator in the world. And she is still one of the greatest leaders I have ever met and will ever meet.

And so they’re going to emphasize Pat’s strengths and what she has always done well. And the things that she’s having a little trouble dealing with, they will just delegate to her assistant coaches.

She’s got 89 years combined experience on the bench behind her. Her associate head coach, Holly Warlick, has worked with her for 28 years. Her assistant, Mickie DeMoss, has worked with her for 20 years. The youngest member of the staff has been here seven years and participated in two national championships. So, she has a real brain trust on the bench around her.

And, as her friend, I feel — I just parachute in periodically from out of town. I can go home with a lot of peace knowing that she’s got that kind of armor and love around her.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Sally Jenkins from The Washington Post, thanks for your work and your articles.

And, Tyler, best of luck to you and your mom. Thanks so much for joining us.